My friend needs a ride to the hairdresser. She has to sit frequently. She gasps for breath and coughs from the 30+ years of being a smoker. She doesn’t like the way her new tank ‘pulses’ intermittently instead of releasing a steady stream of oxygen. But the tank with the steady stream empties quickly. It costs too much money to keep refilling it so often. She can’t afford it, this luxury of comfortable breath.
I think of the days when I was a smoker. A cool, hip teenager. Years ago. The corners of my mouth turn down in disgust at the thought of smoking again and polluting the new healthy version of my temple body. A shiver of disappointment in my past unwise choices rattles down my spine. My breathing exercises during yoga classes would be labored if I were still a smoker. But now, I breathe deeply, completely. I fill my lungs and fully exhale through a series of pranayama breath practices. Each breath a precious gift. I am grateful for my desire and the accompanying discipline to quit all those years ago. I am grateful for the luxury of my comfortable breath.
But I wonder as I sit in the waiting area at the hair salon inhaling toxic chemical fumes, will those days of lung abuse eventually show up for revenge? Will I have to carry around a tank full of pulses of air everywhere I go? Have I sold my lungs for a fleeting moment of delusional, youthful cool?
I hear my friend tell her stylist the story about her new oxygen tank that ‘pulses.’
The stylist says, “Oh, that’s not good.”
My friend says, “No, it’s not.” Cough. Cough.
They talk about eucharistic ministers and choir members from a church they both attend. They are excited about the music they will hear during their Christmas service. My friend says she misses singing. She says she wants to sing so badly, to “feel the music in her throat”, but her lungs “get all locked up” when she tries.
I can hear my friend drag her walker to her chair. She rolls into the waiting area. I can hear the pulse, like a slow, drawn-out heartbeat magnified on a machine in the hospital, raspy like the hissing voice of Darth Vader. Her haircut looks good. She is lighter. Refreshed. She coughs as she pays the receptionist. We walk slowly to the car. We make one more stop for her blood test. I carry the extra oxygen tank that we always keep in the trunk in and out of each building we visit. “‘Cause you never know,” she says.
I help her out of her coat and back into her chair just in time for Wheel of Fortune. The oxygen pulses as a contestant spins the wheel. The pulse is a normal sound now, a resigned acceptance of the interruption to the rhythm of our conversations. We say our goodbyes until next time.
I think of my friend in her chair, watching television, struggling for breath and coughing. I wish I could fix it for her. I fill my lungs with air, appreciating a taken-for-granted life-giving gift. I turn on the radio and sing softly as I drive home. “Cause you never know.